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Inside India’s Lost Temple City Where Monkeys Rule

Some stranger suggested it—swore by it. He seemed like a credible source. And so I didn’t bother to google it. Instead I blindly bought a bus ticket and hopped aboard for one rickety 10-hour journey from Arambol, Goa, in the south of India to Hampi, Karnataka, just about 200 miles west.

Eventually, I felt the overnight bus roll to a stop and I reluctantly peeled open my heavy eyes. Every time we’d pulled over throughout the night, a man would hop on touting a steaming canteen of chai or stale peanuts or warm fruit flecked with flies. Their shouting voices had woken me up from my sorry semblance of sleep one too many times along the way. This time, however, I woke up to pleasantly surprising sherbet skies. My jaw, agape in a yawn, dropped further to the floor congested with the scattered bodies of somnolent bus riders who didn’t get seats.

I’d made it to Hampi, and I was stunned.

Travel is transcending space. Though it often feels like transcending time—decades or centuries rather than zones. But, suddenly, I’d been transported to a whole other unmapped planet. A planet where it rains boulders that build mountains no man could mold. Mountains that defy gravity. Mountains that fortify derelict stone structures and ruined temples and dilapidated dens luring the leopards and the bears. Mountains that overlook undulating fields of foliage so fresh with bananas, the monkeys abound. And rule.

Hampi, an ancient village on the south bank of the Tungabhadra river, is a place that propels travelers like me onward. Because, when we find places like Hampi, we’re reborn, alive with a keener curiosity than ever before.

It wasn’t long after clambering out of the packed bus, however, that I wished I’d researched the place. Though the landscape wouldn’t have wowed me quite the same had I been mentally prepared for it, I had not a clue what I was absorbing. The storied skeleton of a kingdom that’d once reigned supreme.

Hampi’s history is unparalleled.

Today, Hampi is a sacred pilgrimage site for Hindus. But its significance dates back centuries.

Hampi, known as the “Monkey Kingdom,” is recognized as the birthplace of Hanuman, the Hindu Monkey God. It’s also where Hindus believe Lord Rama fought in the Ramayana, an important piece of Hindu literature that well predates the Vijayanagara Empire (1336 to 1565). It tells of the rescue of Lord Rama’s kidnapped wife, Sita. Hanuman is believed to have brought rocks from all over India to build a bridge from Hampi to Sri Lanka to save her. That’s said to be how the boulder-strewn banks of the Tungabhadra River came to be.

It was in Hampi, too, that Lord Shiva—renowned as the Adiyogi, or the first-ever yogi—married Goddess Pampa, daughter of Lord Brahma, the creator God. The Tungabhadra river was called Pampa after her, and the land became known as Pampakshetra. Over time, Pampa became Hampa, which ultimately became Hampi.

Centuries later during the Vijayanagara Empire, Hampi functioned as the epicenter of the ruby and diamond trade. Peppered with Dravidian temples (South Indian temples characterized by high gopuras or gatehouses), regal pavilions, titivated temples, an octagonal bath and majestic palaces, it was amongst the largest and wealthiest cities in the world and the most powerful kingdom in medieval India.

But when Deccan sultanates conquered Hampi one afternoon in January 1565, the city was pillaged and, ultimately, left abandoned. The Battle of Talikota, as it became known, reduced Hampi to ruins, and it lay in rural obscurity for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until the 19th century when the British “rediscovered” the city—by then, a ghost of grandeur—that it was relatively revitalized. Hampi was ultimately made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986.

Today, the ruins of the once-commanding kingdom represent Hampi’s opulence and obliteration. The wind moans stories of its harrowing demise in tunnels of fragmented temples. And monkey troops still cavort between Banyan trees, redolent of what the hallowed Monkey Kingdom once was.

While it’s full of wonder, Hampi still lies off the beaten path for many travelers who come to India, mostly, to visit the Golden Triangle: Delhi, Agra (for the Taj Mahal) and Jaipur. But visitors would be remiss not to make the journey.

Travelers are spoiled for choice of places to see and adventures to have in Hampi.

Plentiful guesthouses and even nearby resorts are perfect places to stay to get to know the city. Never mind that visitors can spend infinite days marveling at the supernatural landscape, Hampi boasts a wealth of history to explore and adventures on which to embark.

On foot, by tuk tuk, or by renting a motorbike of their own, visitors are free to wander through the Indo-Islamic architecture of geometrical designs, mythical God carvings and Hindu sculptures, denoting Hampi’s multi-faith past. The labyrinth of more than 1,600 surviving remains of forts, temples, bazaars, shrines, pillared halls, and other sacred complexes invites them to explore. Among the ruins are the Lotus Mahal complex, as well as the Krishna, Pattabhirama, Hemakuta, Achyutaraya and Virupaksha temples.

The intricate Virupaksha Temple, which is used to worship Lord Shiva, is arguably Hampi’s most identifiable landmark. It’s the oldest temple in Hampi and, allegedly, the oldest functioning temple in the country. Inside lives Lakshmi, the temple elephant who heads down to the Tungabhadra every morning for a bath. Visitors can follow Lakshmi to the river to lend a helping hand.

It’s the same river that they can traverse by Dongi, a bowl-shaped boat made of reed, saplings, and hide. Sunset is a beautiful time to float, for those not up for clambering to the top of Matanga Hill for a sunset drum circle amongst both locals and backpackers alike.

When the day is done, many choose to retire on the other, sleepier side of the Tungabhadra, in Anegundi. Characterized by a small, artisanal market that throngs the river and artful but unassuming guesthouses—mostly hammock-strewn huts—Anegundi is a hippie haven.

Taxi boats take visitors the two minutes across the water, where drum circles and jam sessions still emanate from the mountains. While many visitors opt to relax on colorful carpets in lazy cafes like the Laughing Buddha or read by the riverfront, others choose to continue on foot to explore hidden gems like the Valikilla Cave (also known as the Bali-Sugriv Gufa), where the mythical Bali from Ramayan had meditated. Many more will hike up Anjeyanadri Hill to visit the Monkey Temple, too.

But visitors may not be able to visit Hampi (at least as it is) for much longer.

A recent drought and ensuing blistering temperatures have had an evident effect on visitors to the heritage city, according to the Deccan Herald, an English daily newspaper published in Karnataka.

While tourism numbers witnessed an upward trend from the financial years 2014-2015 and 2017-2018, those numbers have more than halved. Foreign tourism numbered 35,000 to 50,000 in the last few years, but 2018-2019 saw just 17,949 tourists. Domestic tourism dropped by about a million visitors, as well.

And while visiting before climate change wreaks irreversible havoc is a good enough reason to go now, it’s not the only reason.

In an effort to stem the tides and better preserve Hampi, the Union Government declared in February 2018 that it’ll be transforming Hampi into an Iconic Tourism Site, budgeting for bathroom and drinking water facilities, signage, pathways and ramps, parking lots, ticket counters and more, according to the Times of India. While these facilities will ideally prove convenient for tourists in these tougher times, mass tourism will inevitably detract from Hampi’s natural wonder and arguably depreciate its ethereal beauty.

As such, there’s mounting tension between authorities and locals, many of whom have been forcefully displaced over the years. Restoring the Karnataka city comes at the price of evicting many of those who call the old bazaar home—those who’ve kept Hampi a living monument, as opposed to a museum. For years, conservationists have evacuated the locals living in the small stone pavilions, known as mandapas. Many of them had sold coconuts, bananas, peanuts and chai to tourists, on whom their livelihoods relied. Others rented rooms in their houses to visitors seeking truly immersive experiences.

As bulldozers move in on their homes, the informal economy is likely to struggle on the outskirts. Likewise, visitors will be left to look elsewhere for accommodation, commuting in to see Hampi as opposed to staying to experience Hampi.

So visit Hampi before it’s overrun by sunhat-clad, flag-toting tour groups—while it maintains some semblance of the largely uncharted time warp it still, for the unforeseeable future, is.